The adventures of Aaron Wheeler

Photo: Daniel Gajdamowicz

Author’s note: This column is basically a part 2 of my column from Tuesday, Man in the Arena: Soccer analysis in America.

Austin Berry could return to Philadelphia Union’s starting lineup Saturday.

Union manager John Hackworth said Wednesday that the center back is healthy and has looked good in practice, and Hackworth is considering changes after last weekend’s 2-1 loss to Seattle.

“Clearly, no matter what, when you give up two goals, there’s always situations where you’re going to look at and you think you might make some changes, and we’re certainly considering that for this weekend,” Hackworth said. “Austin gives us a really good choice if we choose to do that.”

That means the Aaron Wheeler experiment could get a temporary stay.

Wheeler’s early performances at center back in place of the injured Berry justified Union manager John Hackworth’s experiment after Wheeler made MLS Team of the Week thanks to his athletic, physical play.

But Saturday’s match at Seattle reminded everyone how difficult it is to transition from striker to center back, particularly at the MLS level.

Each team deployed a 6-4 center back who dramatically influenced the game’s outcome. One has been playing center back professionally for a decade, the other a few months.

For Seattle, Chad Marshall scored the game-winning goal and blocked six shots, including four of the five Union shots taken inside the penalty area. His performance should have made him the MLS Player of the Week (he got my vote in the NASR weekly poll) and drawn attention from U.S. national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann.

For Philadelphia, Wheeler was at fault on both Seattle goals and had a near-disastrous first 10 minutes playing in perhaps the most intimidating soccer venue in MLS.

The contrast shows just how big a difference one player can make in a game.

An adventurous first 10 minutes

Seattle’s goals will draw everyone’s attention, but the match felt like “The Adventures of Aaron Wheeler” long before Seattle scored.

In the match’s first 10 minutes, nearly every Wheeler play was an adventure. Chalk it up to nerves — and can you blame him? He was starting a must-win match at a new position before 40,000-plus screaming fans. Let’s review those first 10 minutes.

1:35: Wheeler nearly gives the ball away under pressure, but his pass just barely slips through to a teammate down the left sideline.

2:29: After a short exchange of passes with Maurice Edu, Wheeler sends an errant pass high and out of bounds just as Osvaldo Alonso shows signs of pressuring him.

5:25: Wheeler makes a good headed clearance in his own box.

6:45: Wheeler steps up to close down Brad Evans along his sideline about five yards into his own half, despite Edu being adequately positioned. Edu sees the redundancy and waves Wheeler on.

Evans sends Clint Dempsey a through ball into the space that Wheeler just vacated. Brian Carroll chases.

Obafemi Martins makes a central run toward goal and pulls his marker, Sheanon Williams, with him. Amobi Okugo, who had slid over to fill the left central gap left by Wheeler, moves to help Williams when Dempsey passes centrally toward Martins.

Martins lets the ball go free behind him to a wide open Lamar Neagle cutting in from the left into the space vacated by Okugo and Williams. Neagle slams an open shot off the crossbar. Wheeler heads the rebound onwards.

9:25: Wheeler collects Stefan Frei’s long clearance in his own half. He then surprises Carroll with a short pass near midfield right after Carroll briefly turns his head away to check the defense behind him. The slightly errant pass goes by Carroll to Martins. Martins passes to Dempsey, who swings it wide left to Neagle. Neagle fires a shot directly at Zac MacMath.

The goals

Wheeler settled down after that and made some good defensive plays.

But then came Seattle’s goals. While he was not solely at fault, each scoring sequence began with Wheeler.

On the first goal, Wheeler chose not to challenge Brad Evans for a header near the 18 and instead head-faked as though he would. Evans collected the ball and lofted it behind Okugo to Martins, who buried the goal.

On the second goal, Wheeler was marking Chad Marshall on a Marco Pappa corner kick. Marshall beat Wheeler and the Union’s defensive help to head in the corner for the winner.

Too much, too soon?

It was a rough day, certainly one Wheeler would like to forget. And it was probably due now that opposing teams have had time to review game film on Wheeler and identify his tendencies.

But let’s maintain some perspective on Wheeler.

“I think he’s done very well, and yet, without sugar coating anything, he’s had some moments and some plays that he hasn’t made and have been difficult,” Hackworth said Wednesday. “That being said, you look at his body of work, and it’s impressive that he’s been able to make the transition from a forward to a center back and play at the level that he has. He made some really good plays on Saturday night against Seattle, and he had a couple that we all wish and — he and I have already talked about a couple that he wishes he had back. But those are really great learning experiences for a guy like Aaron who has so much potential. He’s clearly going to be an important piece to our team going forward and, while there has to be some growing pains that are at least understood by our staff, so far, he’s played well in those moments.”

Wheeler’s performances have been admirable, sometimes very impressive, and sometimes overmatched. (For more on this, see Adam Cann’s preview of the upcoming Union-DC United game.)

Hackworth took a chance that Wheeler could make a good center back. He was and is probably right. (Whether Wheeler has better potential at forward is another column altogether.) After Ethan White’s disastrous performance on loan for Harrisburg last weekend, let’s put to rest the notion that Wheeler wasn’t the best backup center back available on the roster.

But Hackworth clearly stuck with Wheeler too long after Berry returned to fitness. Then again, remember that Berry initially returned from injury too soon and played poorly as a result, which is what prompted Wheeler’s return to the lineup after a one-game absence.

That said, with such limited experience, it’s hard to expect Wheeler to be good and consistent so soon at this high a level. This is not high school or college. This is professional soccer. This kind of conversion is difficult.


  1. This was so stupid from BOTH sides. 1) We had a former ROTY at CB, a former rising start in White, and a draft pick they liked enough to keep. There was NO reason to go looking for a CB in Wheeler.

    And 2) I actually didn’t mind seeing Wheeler in at F at all. He is the perfect sub for a Casey like striker. He is picture perfect for when we need size and strength up there. I also thought he was good for atleast 1 tackle when he was subbed in at forward.

    Moral of the story is Hackworth is dumb.

  2. Earl Reed says:

    It was also admirable for Edward John Smith to go down with the Titanic. Sometimes forethought from those in control can prevent disasters.

  3. yes, too much too soon. It wasn’t clear to me last season Wheeler fit well at forward – at least enough to supplant Casey and (now) Wenger – or for the long term. The small issues you mention add up – especially the positioning and distribution. It would seem Berry’s return to full fitness makes him the choice – and he needs a good showing to get the RSL clanker out of memory. Wheeler shows great courage to change positions – and to have at least survived the initial process. he is a good player and can add to the side in the long run. More than we can say for White after his Hburg outing. It seems Okugo does best at CB (rather than MF where I would rather see him playing) when he is the one using quickness to make plays and his CB partner remains central and wins a lot of the head/free balls. With Wheeler, Okugo appeared to be in that latter role and his lack of size/strength appeared to limit his production.

  4. Andy Muenz says:

    From personal experience, I’ve found it’s rarely a good thing when a coach tries to change a player’s position. I remember growing up I was a left wing but had a couple of coaches tried to make me a fullback.
    The first time it happened, I was directly at fault on two goals by making back passes to the keeper that were too soft because I was afraid of kicking it into the back of the net. The coach moved me back to wing for the second half and I scored a goal but we still lost 3-2 for our only loss of the season.
    The second time was in high school where the JV coach decided I should be a fullback even though we already had fullbacks who were better than I was and that I was (or at least thought I was) better than anyone else we had at left wing. So I ended up sitting on the bench most of the year, watching the team lose a lot more games than we should have, and then decided to run cross country the following year.
    Based on those experiences, I think playing someone at or near the position they are familiar with is almost always going to be better for everyone.

    • Dan Walsh says:

      Good story, good analogy.

      Reminds me of my high school (American) football career. I was a 6-0, 145, sophomore wide receiver. Ran a 4.8 40 (eventually got to around 4.6). Played for a team that ran the wishbone and never passed. Got converted to tight end after some injuries to other players. Started all year for JV, but it didn’t exactly work out too well. Wasn’t fun. (Taught me some lessons I implemented later as a coach.) So I started focusing on basketball instead.

      I should have fallen in love with soccer earlier. 😉

    • Completely agree. This is similar to a comment I made on today’s article about HCI and playing Pedro R. at CB.
      Why spend years trying to improve areas of weakness so that a player can become AVERAGE at a new position? Instead, focus on further improving their existing strengths so they can become GREAT in their natural place on the pitch.
      A lot of research has been done on this philosophy (i.e. Marcus Buckingham).

      • Addendum for clarification: The Marcus Buckingham reference is not intended to suggest that the research was done in an athletics setting, but the principle still applies.

      • One of the fundamental tenants of all sport is playing to your strengths. Sure you can make areas of weakness stronger, but the fact remains to be most successful, especially at the professional level, it is the strengths that set you apart.

  5. It stinks that White apparently made a fool of himself at Harrisburg (to be fair, I never rated him as more than a marginal MLS player) as that will keep Hack from sending Wheeler down to get the minutes he so desperately needs at a lower level of competition.

    We can only hope at this point that an additional defender is acquired or Marquez shows well enough to be the third man in the rotation.

    • Eli Pearlman-Storch says:

      There’s something so comical about Berry getting put on the bench after 1 bad game and White being largely written off after 1 bad game (his first in how long?)
      Neither player covered themselves in glory in either game, but centerbacks need time to develop chemistry with their teammates, it’s the most team-oriented position on the field.
      I’m not attacking you at all, just commenting on the lack of patience shown for these players, both by fans and seemingly by certain coaches.

      • I think most fans disagreed with the idea of ‘certain coaches’ benching Berry after one bad game. But White? He got torched in a minor league game, and responded by punching a guy. That doesn’t give high hopes that he can shake off the rust.

      • Earl Reed says:

        Exactly, he should have shoulder charged the guy like Wheeler and he would have seen the first team.

      • scottymac says:

        You’ve won, take the rest of the day off

      • I’m definitely not writing off White based on this supposed Harrisburg debacle (I didn’t see it myself, just reading what others said about it), just expressing that having a terrible game in the minors will likely keep him off the varsity roster for a while.

      • The Black Hand says:

        Agree, Eli. It’s always a pretty good idea to have your CB’s be CB’s.

      • scottymac says:

        Berry played well before the injury, his game back was rough and he was at fault for those two goals. At this point, Wheeler leads in the oft-argued “Whose fault was it category?”.

        Can we all agree that I’m sure Wheeler is a great guy and donates time to charities and he’s just goshdarnit trying his best? No one blames him for not being a CB, however, if he’s going to play there he deserves criticism for poor play. I also think (please not the MLS team of the week again)the narrative that he has “played well” is graded on the not-a-CB curve. He’s been lauded for getting back and making plays for areas he has been out of position for. If he wasn’t caught out, he wouldn’t have to make 40 yard runs and a slide tackle from behind. Do you remember Parke doing that? Valdes so far out? No, you don’t. You remember poise, not flash. Quiet, solid defending. Even if Hacktics is dictating Wheeler all the way to touchline (which is madness), I’m assuming it is because Hack is coaching Wheeler based on his ability and what he shows in training for the role. Wheeler might not look like Six Flags if Hack told him to just stay home. This get all the way out left to cover space Gaddis vacates upfield exacerbates those awful,awful passes.

  6. I’m of the opinion that Wheeler could be a good CB…if we could go back in time and have him play that position for the last 5 years.
    There is an underlying knack to playing defense that most people simply don’t have no matter how much training you give them (it’ pretty constant across sports too). It’s the ability to watch an opponent’s body language and instinctively anticipate their moves. Is he shooting or just faking the shot? Who is he trying to pass to? Bad plays aside, Wheeler does have that ability. For someone with so little training as a defender, it’s amazing how frequently he steps into passing lanes to easily steal the ball.
    But the problem is he’s doing everything on instinct right now. He doesn’t have enough experience as a CB and it shows. He doesn’t know where to be in the context of a back four and the spacing that involves. He frequently clears when he should pass it out and makes dangerous passes when he should just boot the ball downfield. Given time, I’m confident you can fix those problems. BUT WE SHOULDN’T BE FIXING IT DURING THE SEASON.

    • George H says:

      Agreed, great points.

      You can also see it with his headers (the guys talked about this on the podcast). It’s like he knows that his header needs to go up rather than down, yet he kinda pops them straight up in the air rather than further upfield.

      He could end up being a decent centerback, but that’s what Harrisburg is for rather than learning it at the MLS level.

    • +1

    • Southside Johnny says:

      Amen, brother. You nailed it. It’s a shame no coach along the way saw that he was naturally better suited to the back line. It’s like the kids in baseball that end up as good pitchers at youth levels and can’t cut it later who could have been great catchers had they started earlier. He has potential, but as you clearly stated, this is neither the time nor the place.

    • Underlying knack.

  7. James Lockerbe says:

    O.k Here is my two cents.

    I say Mr. Wheeler has been put in an impossible position by his coach. Learning a new position during regular season games, not a spot I would want to find myself.

    With that said, I must tip my hat to Mr. Wheeler he probably knew it wasn’t going to be pretty. Yet he went in where his coach told him to go and that’s what I have been teaching my son.

    My 10yr son likes the defense It fits his natural abilities he is not the fastest player on the field. He has this great ability to wait and tackle the ball away from the offensive player at the perfect time. So at the beginning of this season. He walked up to his new coach and said,” hi I am Jimmy and I play defense.”

    I politely corrected him and told him the coach will decide where you play. See the coach has the job of looking at all of his players and try to come up with the line up that will be most successful. Now, I am not going to go into Mr. Hackworth’s thoughts. He must have saw something to place Wheeler on the backline.

    My point here is that, Mr. Wheeler being a true professional said o.k. coach, tied up his boot laces and took to the field. You got to respect that.

    • James Lockerbe says:

      Thank you, Dan for another great article and a fine example of how you can point out a players faults and still remain respectful

  8. Thanks Dan for asking the question about Berry during the press conference! I had just turned to my hubbie to complain that somebody should bring it up when you took care of it. I can’t wait to see our starting back line on Saturday. I’ll save you a frosty beverage if you make it up and over to Lot A.

  9. jerseycity says:

    Bring in a coach with a clue as to how to manage the team on game day! If Nick wants to keep Hackworth in a GM or some other front office capacity, fine, but Hack is overmatched and not up to par as the coach

  10. philpill says:

    Signing White & Berry plus moving Wheeler might make sense if Okugo fills in for Edu.- Wishful Thinker.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


%d bloggers like this: